Potential new discoveries in pregnancy research

In this Q&A, we sit down and chat with with Tom Willmott, a researcher based at Tommy’s Maternal and Fetal Health Research Centre in Manchester. He gives a rare insight into a novel and exciting area of pregnancy health research, known as ‘maternal microbiology’, looking at what we can learn by studying bacteria in the mouths of mums-to-be.

Tommy's researcher Tom Willmott PhD

Tom Willmott from Watford is currently working towards a PhD at Tommy’s Research Centre in Manchester. He specialises in a novel area of pregnancy research known as ‘maternal microbiology’ and is currently focusing on the oral microbiome. Put simply, he’s investigating the bacteria present in a pregnant woman’s mouth and the relationship it has with pregnancy health.

"I’ve always been excited about the idea of discovering new things. It’s amazing to work in a field where discoveries are being made every day." 

How did you get into pregnancy research?

After studying biology, physics and chemistry in sixth form, I knew I wanted a career in science. From a young age, I found it fascinating to ask a question and go down a route to find the answer without knowing for sure what was going to happen. I went on to study biology at Aberystwyth, University of Wales; the course was great, and very broad, which meant I had space to find my passion within the field. As an under-graduate, I was very interested in microbiology and spent some time studying infectious diseases - I’ve always been interested in aspects of biology that have a direct impact on people’s health. 

After a brief research break, teaching children in Vietnam, I embarked upon a post-graduate degree in microbiology at the University of Manchester. My work focused on the oral microbiome, learning more about all the different types of bacteria that exist within the mouth and how this this related to people’s overall health. Once I completed my masters, I applied for a PhD at the Tommy’s Maternal and Fetal Health Research Centre in Manchester, with a project focusing on the oral microbiome and pregnancy health.

Tell us a little bit more about your PhD project.

The project is built around the question: ‘is the oral microbiome of pregnant ladies who have healthy pregnancies different from those who have complicated pregnancies?’ The hypothesis is that there are differences, so we need to learn more about what they are and if we can change them, because then it might be possible to see if a mum’s oral microbiome could indicate her risk of pregnancy complications like hypertension.

This is novel, exciting work and hasn’t really been explored before. It involves work in the lab and a clinical trial for expectant mums. Working with pregnant women has been amazing. They’re recruited by the wonderful Tommy’s research midwives and offer their time to help us learn more. They all volunteer for the trial, and it’s inspiring to see people give up their own time to help us learn more so that we can offer better care to mums in the future.

What does taking part in a clinical trial actually involve?

After they sign up to be involved, we invite expectant mums into the centre for a morning session. I ask them not to eat any breakfast so I can take a saliva sample and swab before they’ve consumed any food, in addition to taking blood samples and some body measurements such as blood pressure. I give them a shot of beetroot juice and they can relax for 2-3 hours, then we repeat the tests and they’re free to leave.

In the afternoon, I go to the lab to analyse the bacteria they have in their mouth and how this relates to all the other measurements we took. I need to see when and how these different things link up, to work out if there’s a relationship between their oral microbiome and pregnancy health.

Describe a typical day's work for you.

"There isn’t a typical day! That’s the great thing about working in research, no two days are the same."

Before the pandemic, I spent much of my time working on the clinical trial aspect of my project. However, clinical trials are currently paused so my days look quite different. Before our labs reopened, I worked hard to write up 2 chapters of my thesis – as well as a lot of data analysis and reading, so this time was actually very useful as it enabled me to really focus.

During lockdown, I also gained a qualification in lecturing, which is really exciting! I’m now back in the lab, albeit in a socially distanced way, and able to continue some elements of my project. We’re currently applying to start running the clinical trial again and hoping to get a thumbs up very soon.

Why do you believe pregnancy research is so important?

I entered the world of pregnancy research through a completely different area of biology and knew very little about specific pregnancy complications to begin with. There’s been so much to learn, and I’ve loved every minute of it.

One of the first things that struck me when I became a Tommy’s researcher was the vast scope of pregnancy research happening here in Manchester. Pregnancy is still a relatively under-researched area of science; that’s why the work of Tommy’s is so vital.

I also find pregnancy research very emotive – the discoveries made at our research centre make a tangible difference to many people’s lives. It’s inspiring to work in a centre where people are striving to save babies’ lives and I’m learning from those around me every day.

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